They were scattered throughout lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, most notably in the West Village and Little Italy. These were not clubs like the 21 Club or the Explorers Club uptown; these were little storefronts, with a few tables, usually a kitchen, a small bar, sometimes booths, but they were just as private and just as exclusive as those fancy ones. There were usually a couple of chairs out front, maybe a folding table. And there were always a couple of middle-aged men, usually of Italian descent sitting on those chairs, smoking cigars and discussing business. It was no business of ours. If you weren’t a member of their group, you had no business being there at all. They became familiar to millions by watching the Sopranos. But the ones I remember didn’t need a television show to make them famous : the Ravenite Social Club, a favorite hang-out of the Teflon Don, John Gotti; the Triangle Club, associated with the Genovese family, the Motion Lounge-the Bonnano clan, and of course the famous Bergen Hunt and Fish Club where Carlo Gambino held court (not sure how much fishing was discussed but hunting of a certain kind was most certainly a topic of discussion).
Now growing up there, as a kid, I had no idea what was going on behind those doors; not many did, though the FBI tried their best. We would just walk by them, minding our own business, and if any eye contact was made, it was quickly dismissed. We had our lives, those folks had theirs. Dad especially was vigilant about not wanting us to interact in the slightest with the people that hung out at those places. Sometimes it was awkward, as some of those club members were also members of our Church Parrish or perhaps worked at one of the many stores we frequented. As we would walk by, Dad moving Mom smoothly to the street side of the sidewalk (a very cool, almost imperceptible move of his) grabbing our hands, one of those guys hanging out might call out: “Hey Tony…how ya doing? Hows the family? They’re looking good”. Dad knew, of course, they were referring to Mom, and he would call back without looking at the guy: “Doing well thanks, take care” and pick up the pace, a slightly tighter clench to his jaw. He was a scrupulously honest man and didn’t want his family associated with anything the slightest bit questionable, whether real or imagined.
So the worlds co-existed; these little enclaves with whole other sets of rules to live by, and our straight, rather unexciting one. They rarely intersected.
Now let me be clear and fair: The majority of these clubs and their members were just hard-working immigrants who needed a place of their own to unwind, socialize (thus the name), and feel a part of their neighborhood and world. I think the “element” I refer to above was a small portion of the scene. However, it was the portion that got the press to the point that even the name “Social Club” came to mean a gathering place for those engaged in some not so legit business.
I remember as a young man, maybe high school age, being asked by a dear friend if I wanted to help with a voter registration drive going on in their neighborhood to support a local candidate I had never even heard of (who paid attention to such things?) for a spot on some school board or something. My friend lived on Sullivan Street in the Village (above a funeral home), and of course, I said yes, being a civic-minded, naïve sort, and of course wanting to help my friends family and their friends, in the neighborhood. She had enlisted a few other of us that always hung together, and we all met one night at one of these social clubs to plan out how we could canvass different parts of the neighborhood to get out the vote for their candidate. So we get there, and it is what you would expect; dark wood, leather booths, smoke in the air, the faint smell of tomato sauce coming from the back room, obviously a small kitchen. And as you would expect the woman running the show was a large, rather stern, matriarch of this artificial family that was the club. Us young folk all gathered around a large wooden table, where maps of the neighborhood had been laid out. The woman, name lost to time, lit a king-sized cigarette and stained the filter red with her lipstick, which she constantly re-applied throughout the evening. We all did a lot of nodding, and I for one wasn’t quite understanding exactly what I was signing up for, but what the heck, it was something to do. So the evening eventually wound down, and we all supposedly knew where we were supposed to get out the vote starting the following night. The woman offered us lemonade and Italian pastries, and as confused as I was, this made the evening well worth it.
About the time we were all getting ready to go, having stuffed ourselves with Cannoli and Sfogliatelle, a door I hadn’t even noticed opened and a large guy dressed in a suit walked in, motioning to the woman. She got up and went to stand by him, and engaged in a whispered conversation. I strained to hear but was only able to catch a word or two. But that was all I needed to hear. Because the two words I heard were “the Chin”.
Now I have always been a student of the so-called Costa Nostra; had read, even by then, scores of books on Capone, Luciano, the Castellammarese War, all of it. But even if you weren’t, all you had to be was an avid reader of the New York Daily News and you would know who “the Chin” was. It was the nickname given to Vincent Gigante, the man who took over the Genovese family when Vito went to prison. One of the original Five Families of New York, The Genovese family was allegedly one of the most powerful branches of the Cosa Nostra in the nation. At the time, there was nothing proven to attach the man to any crime at all; A few years later, he would walk the streets of the Village in pajamas and a bathrobe, showing all that he was an old man who had lost his marbles, not a criminal mastermind. And everywhere he went, the FBI would go too, filming every step.
And then I realized what social club I was sitting in – they didn’t have signs advertising themselves then. As my jaw dropped a bit, and my bowels got weak, I realized I was sitting in the aforementioned Triangle Club, just down the street from my friend’s home on Sullivan Street. One of my other friends noticed my reaction, and while not knowing what caused it asked if I was ok; I had evidently gone pale.
We, as a group got up to leave, as that door opened again and another figure walked in, and he wasn’t wearing a bathrobe.
Time to go.
Hearing muffled thanks from the woman, and the nicely dressed man who had entered the room, I was the first to reach the not so fresh air of Sullivan Street.
I remember one of my first thoughts was that Dad would kick my ass around the block to be caught in this club, whether the stories were true or not.
Our group all chattered excitedly about what we would do the next night to “get out the vote”, and I mumbled something incoherent, already making up excuses in my mind for why I couldn’t make My friend (remaining nameless- did you notice?), noticed my hesitation, and re-assuringly said:
“Rob, it’s ok if you don’t want to do this…I understand….its no big deal”.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No need to be sorry. I appreciate you coming with me tonight”
She gave me a hug and a smile and turned to go back into the club. I felt relieved but just had to ask:
“Hey…that guy…..was that really?……”
She smiled at me again, shrugged her shoulders and responded:
“You want to go ask him?”
It was my turn to smile.
“No, no…..that’s alright….I’m good.”
I remember the walk home that night being extra long. When I finally got there, Dad looked up from his newspaper to ask:
“You have a nice time tonight?”
I nodded, suddenly realizing how very grateful I was to come home and see him sitting there. I was grateful for the way he protected Mom when walking down the street; for the way he had shielded us from the darker things that haunted the neighborhood; and I was grateful that he chose to be here with his family, his real family, instead of sitting in a social club with the boys. He wasn’t a man with power, and influence, didn’t have a lot of money and fancy belongings, he was just an honest man doing his best to raise his family well. Maybe that wouldn’t have impressed the boys downtown, but to me, he was El Capo di tutti capi.